The One That Got Away

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One of the most frequently asked questions about my collection is “Where did you find all this stuff?”

Auctions, antique stores, flea markets and collectable shows are a few of the sources. Numerous dealers search out collections and items for sale on my behalf. I say to people quite often that these items just seem to find their way to me.

I’ve driven thousands of miles over the years in pursuit of the next artifact. Walked hundreds of miles around shows, stores and sometimes into not so friendly areas.

There have been some strange items offered to me over the years. Anything from cars to toilets, you name it. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is to listen to all offers. You never know when that obscure item may just be found.

A few years ago I was contacted by a legal firm whose client had some rare Maple Leaf items for sale. This guy had thirteen boxes of files from the Gardens. These files contained everything from the general bills, operating expense bills, player requests, letters, cheques etc. The owner had inherited these as a payment from an ex-roommate for unpaid rent. The guy who owned the files originally had once worked at the Gardens and pulled the boxes from the garbage.

During the bumbling days of Harold Ballard he was noted for doing some pretty bizarre things. He used the championship banners that hung in the rafters as paint tarps for the annual clean up of the Gardens. Brian MacFarlane rescued the Leaf game tapes from the trash. Ballard wanted a room cleared and when Brian informed him they were all the old film of the games, Harold snapped back, “I don’t give a dam what they are, I need this room, get the kids to clear it out.” Ballard as it turned out, needed the room to store some furniture.

The gondola was tossed in the garbage with little regard for it’s historical significance. So I never for a moment doubted how this guy’s roommate acquired the boxes. It was very believable. The unfortunate part of this story was the new owner thought he’d found the “Cash for Life” lottery ticket. In a role I’m very familiar with, I delivered the bad news. While cool and definitely worth something, it just wasn’t as valuable as he thought. He didn’t listen and was actually quite upset with me. He ended up selling the boxes at auction for a quarter of what I offered.

A fire hydrant was offered to me a while ago. It was painted in the Leaf colours and signed by numerous players. Again, very cool item but not suited for my collection. A Leaf jacket and cardigan given to Keith Moon of “The Who” was recently offered to me for sale. In 1976 “The Who” played at Maple Leaf Gardens. The members of the band where given these items as gifts from the promoter. The vendor from London, England, wanted $16,000 Canadian for both pieces. While they are unique, with no proof or photos, it takes away the value. What probably happened was Moon accepted the gifts, smiled graciously, turned, and handed them to a roadie. He more than likely never saw either piece again. Ironically Roger Daltry wore a Darryl Sittler sweater during the concert.

Rarely do I have any remorse over losing out on items. While I do feel bad for a bit, within days something else shows up. That’s been the case for the past fifty years until about a month ago.

I received an email from a fellow member of the Society of International Hockey Research. A granddaughter of Conn Symthe had some family items she was going to sell or donate to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I’ve been in situations like this before so know not to get my expectations to high. Anne was very pleasant and had the few boxes of items on a table. Anne said she wasn’t much of a hockey fan growing up and actually didn’t like the game. I chuckled to myself that even a legendary hockey family has the poor sister or daughter who gets dragged to the rink against there will. In this case the daughter. Her father was Leaf doctor and Conn’s son Hugh.
Anne commented that most of the things were family photo albums and pictures of racehorses. I immediately asked if she had photos of Rare Jewel. She wasn’t sure. Rare Jewel is the long shot horse Conn bet on and then used the proceeds to purchase King Clancy from the cash starved Ottawa Senators in 1930. After some digging I found a picture of the tote board with the payoff for a two-dollar bet. Then I uncovered the match; a picture of Rare Jewel in the winner’s circle. Next Anne was shuffling some cancelled cheques and casually said, “I don’t think these are any good or would be of interest to you Mike.”

I looked anyway. My heart started to race as I spotted a cheque made out to the Ottawa Senators for $20,000 and one for $5000. “Anne do you realize what these are?” I said. “Mike, no idea.”

I went on to explain that these where the cancelled stubs from the King Clancy trade. Still unimpressed, I further explained the Maple Leaf Board of Governors would only approve $25,000 of $35,000 for Clancy, so Symthe used his $10,000 winnings from Rare Jewel to complete one of the most historic trades in hockey history. Anne did smile at that, but I couldn’t tell whether she was smiling at the historic significance or how excited I had become. Regardless, I ventured on. I uncovered some great stuff. There was a letter from EP Taylor offering to buy Symthe’s shares to the Gardens.

I uncovered legal papers between Ballard and Symthe. There was legal advice warning Symthe about Ballard and his proposals. Don’t trust him.

Anne’s favourite Ballard piece was the unpaid bill from a Chicago hotel for Harold’s female assistant. She never stayed in the room and he stiffed the hotel for the bill. The birth certificate belonging to Symthe along with his marriage and death documents all where part of the collection. The flag from his funeral, still folded from the day it was removed from his casket, came out of the box of artifacts. This was a fantastic find.

I spoke to the Hall and we had agreed to work together on this. I would make sure certain pieces ended up with them. I also had plans to work with the Canadian Historical Achieves people to make sure some of the military items ended up in its rightful place. A military magazine titled “The Maple Leaf” from 1917 with Symthe in it was found amongst the pieces. Remember he bought and renamed the team The Toronto Maple Leafs ten years later.

I left Anne’s place with the understanding we’d continue to talk. I assured her that this collection if sold to me would be displayed forever. Wherever my collection ended up one day, her family history would be an integral part of the collection (hopefully with the Leafs as part of a new museum at the ACC for the 100th anniversary).

My mind was buzzing with ideas and how best to show these items. I called one of my fellow Leaf historians asking him to put some time aside so we could research and log the data from this historical find. However it wasn’t to be.

After each of us had visited Anne, the Hall and myself agreed to continue to talk. The plan was to circle back and strategize together. The Hall asked for an additional week to go over the pieces again. I wasn’t given the chance to look a second time. I never heard from the Hall again until weeks after they had secured the collection. They had called to thank me for helping them land the collection.

While I feel like I got played, I’m very happy other Leaf fans will get a chance to see this historic find. However even as I sit writing this, it still really hurts to have missed this collection. I’ll get over it though.

True to form, I’ve had a dozen terrific pieces offered since.